Open Letter to Professional Staff Congress (CUNY) President Barbara Bowen

Sean Kennedy is a doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The PSC is in the midst of negotiating a new contract with CUNY. Kennedy originally wrote and posted this letter in mid-May. It now has nearly 200 signatories.

Dear Barbara—

I write as a union member and CUNY contingent faculty member to express my great dismay at your statement of May 9th praising Mayor De Blasio for his CUNY budget and singling out “full-time faculty and student support staff” as needing “investments” while entirely omitting mention of adjuncts and graduate student workers.

In addition to the questionable negotiating strategy of such mayoral sycophancy—and your bizarre contention that CUNY is the “solution” to “inequality,” when CUNY reproduces, and contributes to, the inequality of New York City at large—I don’t understand how you could ignore the needs of adjuncts and graduate student workers, who teach the vast majority of classes at CUNY and are the majority of union members and agency-fee payers. Furthermore, I don’t understand how full-time faculty need “investments” more than adjuncts and graduate student workers, who make a pittance compared to full-time faculty, work under worse conditions, and lack job security. What kind of message does this send at negotiating time?

Indeed, it seems to me that any “investments” in faculty the union wins from the city should go to adjuncts and graduate student workers and not to full-time faculty, given the extreme inequality between contingent faculty and full-time—inequality that has occurred in large part because of the priority full-time faculty have received by union leadership since the beginning of the Professional Staff Congress and which, quite evidently, continues under your leadership.

I wish I could say your out-of-touch statement is an aberration, but unfortunately it conforms to the sense so many of us adjuncts and graduate student workers at CUNY have about the union’s neglect of us and our issues. It’s certainly been clear to me in my tenure this academic year as an Adjunct Project coordinator, in which you and your leadership team have either ignored or outright stymied our efforts for greater union representation of adjuncts and graduate student workers and our issues.

Union leadership has been unable to respond to or move forward our simple request from December that adjuncts and graduate student workers have a choice of which chapter to affiliate with; our demands for the bargaining agenda were sat on by you, also since December, until a meeting with my colleagues on April 10th, and we’ve received no follow-up from you, including on your promise to include adjuncts and graduate student workers in the bargaining meetings; and our newly reconstituted Graduate Center chapter—an initiative the Adjunct Project proposed at its October 2013 organizing meeting—contains only two student workers on its slate of 12.

Meanwhile, the UFT deal, which will set a precedent for the rest of the city’s bargaining units, including our own, has been heavily critiqued by the Movement for Rank and File Educators caucus, which is waging a struggle against an entrenched, monopolistic party much like the New Caucus, which commands every (or nearly every) chapter of the PSC. At the moment, I feel more allegiance to MORE than I do to our union, given your De Blasio statement and inaction on the above issues.

I am hoping you will find this letter jarring enough to immediately redress these issues, at least the ones you have full control over: namely, the addition of our demands to the bargaining agenda, the inclusion of adjuncts and graduate student workers in the bargaining meetings, and the change in chapter-affiliation policy.

Furthermore, to enable the participation of CUNY adjuncts and graduate student workers in this summer’s COCAL conference, which is being organized by the PSC and taking place at CUNY’s John Jay College, I ask that the union cover the $250 registration fee for 30 adjuncts and graduate student workers at CUNY.

I look forward to your response, Barbara. If you don’t respond, however, I will not write again, as it shouldn’t be my job to convince you of the merits, ethics, and fairness of genuine union democracy and the concomitant representation of adjuncts and graduate student workers and our needs.

Very sincerely,

Sean M. Kennedy, Graduate Center, CUNY

If you are interested in adding your name to the letter, go here.

9 thoughts on “Open Letter to Professional Staff Congress (CUNY) President Barbara Bowen

  1. Of course, in unions like the PSC where there are political “caucuses” and a leadership so entrenched (for decades, literally) that no dialogue is truly possible from within the membership — as the letter above attests by its contents and its very existence — there is not much hope for reform.

    Yes, part-time faculty adjuncts are the majority of the membership, but who among these union bosses is counting heads? PSC, like its SUNY counterpart UUP, is following the money — and a percentage of salary as agency fee means that the full-time tenured faculty are where the leadership perceives its funding priority. And that calls the tune for negotiations.

    This is one of the reasons why agency fee is not the great equalizer and the union democracy issue that unions try to make it out to be. If unions had to earn the respect of their members and follow democratic principles to the letter in order to receive the funding from membership dollars (as was originally the case in UUP, for example, before the agency fee legislation) this would be a far different ball game.

    What the letter above clearly highlights is the hegemony of union bossism and corruption in the PSC. The “caucus” game is a manner of internal control, of course, as well — to preoccupy and “herd” the delegates as union bosses do so well.

    Take a look at the financial report of the PSC’s sister union UUP (cf. pgs. 20-23 at and see that many chapters of these unions run not a single workshop to benefit their members. The majority of the funds from these public university union dues in NYS are shipped “upstairs” to the AFT (and NEA) affiliate NYSUT as well as AFT and AFL-CIO and, in the PSC’s case, also to AAUP. More than half of the millions of dollars collected from the membership are never seen benefiting the members in the chapters; instead they support the large state and national union super-structures which have a life of their own, far far removed from the concerns of adjunct lives.

    That PSC is an AAUP union as well does not change this picture. Hypocrisy rules. And thus one must wonder: Is the Supreme Court’s recent decision on agency fee really a blow to unionism — or to union bosses?

    • Large unions often have their own bureaucracies that create issues with representation, but the idea that Labor would be better of without large unions–with only local entities that would be more responsive to their members–is simply not realistic.

      To function at their best–indeed, simply to survive in the current environment–unions need both things: broadly combined resources and local responsiveness and accountability. Often, achieving a balance between the two needs requires the sorting out of considerable conflicting priorities within the union–such as those asserted in this letter.

      Academic labor has been changing very dramatically, and our unions have sometimes been too slowly responsive to those changes. But we need to value the concept of unionization even while working to make our own unions more representative and more responsive.

      There simply isn’t any sort of viable alternative out there–except what’s occurring in “right to work” states, which isn’t really much of an alternative at all.

      So, if you want to make changes within your union, organize support for your positions on the issues most important to you and your colleagues and get out the vote. All of the changes that you are supporting won’t occur overnight, but that’s the nature of things in just about every type of organization that has endured: the stability that is necessary for an organization to endure sometimes makes the organization more resistant to change than it ideally might be.

      But, again, that does not generally abrogate the inherent value of the organization. After all, what adjunct faculty and graduate students clearly want is a larger voice within this union–and all of our unions–because they recognize the fundamental value of the unions as mechanisms to represent their collective interests.

      If it seems like an unduly difficult undertaking to bring change to our unions from within, it is exponentially more difficult to create an organization with comparable influence and resources from scratch.

      Viewing this from the outside, I think that it would be a good gesture for PSC to cover the cost of the registrations for thirty of their members who are adjunct faculty and graduate student to attend COCAL, as the letter writer requests. After all, PSC would not be hosting COCAL if it didn’t think that the conference is worthwhile.

  2. The substance of Brother Kennedy’s points are on spot. However, there is a much more critical question: Why are unions supporting De Blasio in the first place? Have we learned nothing from the debacles that follow support to Obama and every other Democratic Party “liberal?” Who next? Warren? Sanders? Another unknown savior?

    If labor ran its own independent candidates – teachers or construction workers – it would fundamentally transform the politics of the city and strengthen every aspect of our struggles.

  3. The AAUP leadership has issued the following response to this posting:

    On behalf of the AAUP, we want to stress, as prominently noted on the masthead above, that opinions published on the Academe blog “do not necessarily represent policies of the AAUP.” The Professional Staff Congress is an affiliate of the AAUP and a member in good standing of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. We enjoy excellent relations with the elected leaders of the PSC, several of whom serve simultaneously in important leadership capacities within the AAUP. The AAUP has no interest in becoming involved in internal disputes involving its affiliates or chapters. In particular, we are loath to become involved in public critiques of any affiliate’s approach to contract negotiations, which we know from long experience may be complicated and difficult. While we respect the editorial independence of Academe magazine and of the Academe blog, we do not believe either to be appropriate venues for the publication of documents such as this “open letter.”

    Rudy Fichtenbaum, President, AAUP
    Howard Bunsis, Chair, AAUP-CBC
    Julie Schmid, Executive Director, AAUP/AAUP-CBC

  4. Dear Rudy,

    Quite frankly, I am surprised at your response, and in so noting your opinion, you are really censoring without censoring. Are you taking sides, without supposedly doing so? Well well.

    I thought you were for adjunct faculty? Seems clear enough the line has been drawn.

    In sol(idarity),

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo
    Adjunct Justice
    Facebook Page:

  5. The longstanding public face of academic unions is a face that represents, often soley, FTF. I think the statement that CUNY will or can be a force to repair inequality, when its own contract is, and has been, so absolutely third rate for PTF, is worse than empty rhetoric. It is a glaring bit of hypocrisy. Women, ALL WOMEN, earn on average .77 to a man’s dollar. African Americans earn something like .66 to a white dollar. PTF earn about .40 to a FTF dollar. There is no metric as out of line, as skewed, and no group as homogenous in education as academics. Yet, the disparity is greater than any single comparative metric tracked. Academic unionism is, by and large, a failure for Part-time faculty (although, no doubt, the average non-unionzed PTF worker is probably even farther behind his or her FT colleague–.)..The problem with understanding the national picture is that we do not have mandated reporting of PTF pay, in uniform terms, to the NCTE/IPEDS. AAUP has tried to bridge this data gap, but the solution is to require colleges and universities to report pay and benefits data for ALL workers in order to receive federal HE funding. I hope that AAUP has been active in this lobbying effort . A MLA motion called for more mandated data in 2012, and a key AFT resolution, due to be voted up or down on Saturday, July 11 in LA at the national convention, calls for mandated pay and benefits data on PTF. We service educators have long kept the wheels on higher education. To leave out the, what, 16,000 PTF? teaching at CUNY,in a statement of overall vision and hope–a statement that directly addresses income inequality– seems to be exhibit B in a challenge to fair representation. I hope someone is banking these statements for the challenge that is sure to come. If you union bigcats don’t want to splinter and fracture the whole boat, you’d better wake up. I want to thank Sean for calling on one union leader to address her full constituency, her full membership, in any public statements. Agency fees, as well as membership dues, come with specific legal requirements for representation.

  6. Way to go, AAUP — you manage to both open and stifle discussion by allowing open critique to appear on your site while distancing yourself. There’s no need to remind us that the opinions are not your own. We can see that on every page of the blog.

    If you really want to help save American education, why not stifle neoliberal think tank representatives who are spreading common core for higher ed propaganda via your blog? You do realize you are aiding and abetting the takeover of higher ed the same way it happened to our primary and secondary system, don’t you? (For clarification, see Diane Ravitch’s blog:

    I’m saddened that we are all complicit in the demise of our once amazing public education system. We should be applauding our young people for speaking up, not remonstrating them.

  7. Pingback: Slavery/Abolition/Apartheid/Segregation Comparisons to Contingent Academic Labor Are Never Acceptable | Contingent Representation at CUNY's Union

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